Ever behind-times with reading contemporary books, we spent yesterday and today reading Val McDermid’s retelling of Northanger Abbey. This is part of the Austen Project, which accoringt to The Guardian is endeavouring to make Austen’s ‘timeless classics’ more accessible. Now we tend to be of the opinion that timelessness should convey accessibility by default, but that wasn’t our reason for railing against the first 60 pages of McDermid’s Northanger. In fact what irritated us was that those first 60 pages read not like an adaptation, but like a bizarrely translated version of Austen into ‘modern’ English. In some cases, lines like the the inexplicably memorable ‘Do you know muslin, sir?’ actually are translated. Thus Mrs. Allen’s question to Henry becomes, ‘Are you in textiles, sir? A designer perhaps?’ We can’t put our finger on why this rewrite loses the elegance of Austen to us; it just does.
The thing about that kind of self-conscious referentiality is that if you’re going to make the reference, if you want the prose to shout, ‘See what I did?!’ it’s neater to simply insert the quote being nodded to because similarly, ‘No one should emerge from their teens with the name thier parents chose for them’ while no less true than Austen, falls short of its original, ‘no girl wants to be called at sixteen what she was called at six.’ Well it does for us. Why? Partly it’s because language, like clothing, goes through fashions. The cadence of Regency Era English cannot be converted into modern-day English by simply swapping the words about and really, why should it? We would never attempt this kind of word-for-word updating with Old English because whatever the practice then, it is now not normal to the verb at the end of a sentence put. Austen’s English might lack declensions but the theory is the same; any attempt to directly update it word-for-word sounds at best like a round of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and at worst stilted.
In the case of Austen’s prose though, it’s more than the prose fashion of the period because her writing stands stylistically apart from her contemporaries. Put her beside Maria Edgeworth and you’ll see what we mean. It’s not only the balanced sentences and the elegance of her writing, there’s an asperity to Austen’s wit that is not only too often overlooked but makes her style nigh impossible to replicate. It is -dare we say it? -a truth universally acknowledged that no one but Jane Austen could write like Jane Austen.
In proof of this McDermid’s story takes off when she relaxes the paint-by-number approach to retelling, stops trying to tick referential boxes and settles into narrative adaptation. Twilight -obsessed, vampire mad Cat Morland is a stroke of genius. John Thorpe is if possible worse than before because one thing that does translate is his obnoxious preoccupation with speed and stylish transportation. In an inspired scene set in the run-up to arriving at Northanger, McDermid leans heavily on the idea (implicit in Austen’s prose) that Catherine’s first sleepless night is largely fuelled by Henry’s extravagant fantasies about the place. Better than that, here Catherine encourages him in his hyperbole, even plays along a little, giving her more agency than might be expected by readers familiar with Northanger. In so doing, it gives her the inner life that Austen never quite convinced us Catherine had. We loved her, of course, but Catherine Morland never felt to us as if she was prone to thinking, which explanation we used to playfully cite in lectures for the lack of third-limited prose.
In that sense, McDermid succeeds at re-enervating a beloved classic. True to the spirit, rather than the letter of the text, the book fizzes with energy. The only catch for us is the jarring hyper-modern lingo. For instance returning to her rectory home by coach, Cat texts her father, ‘Fone dead b4. Mist u.’ Look, we get that kids texting use numbers for letters, and abbreviate whole words. But ‘Fone’ for ‘phone’ and ‘mist’ for ‘missed’? It’s not only that though. We’ve never heard teenagers talk the way Cat Morland and Bella Thorpe do, even allowing that we use ‘totally,’ ‘like,’ and ‘so’ considerably less than your average teenager. We know girls of 17. Whatever and however they write online, we have yet to hear one say in all seriousness that something is ‘totes amazeballs.’ Granted, we may be out of the loop. But of one thing we are certain; no girl of seventeen has called anything ‘the bees knees’ since our last encounter with an Enid Blyton book -except Cat Morland and Ellie Tilney, naturally.
In all fairness, we think this kind of hyper-exaggerated slang is intended as satire in the way that Austen’s Northanger was initially a vehicle for the satirisation of the inflammatory register of the Gothic fantasy and the hyperbole of the language of sensibility. The fact that we can’t tell, and the fact that it too often reads like a dire effort to capture modern parlance is problematic. Luckily for our nerves -which were close to resembling Mrs Bennet’s at her most overwrought – it relaxes considerably once Cat is ensconced at Northanger Abbey.
And as quibbles go, we’ll take it, because there is wit and sparkle -and some beautiful similes -to be had from McDermid’s prose. Read it, indulge in and enjoy it. Just don’t, for God’s sake, ask for or expect Austen, because that is unreasonable and unfair in the extreme.